I've been wrestling with one painting ever since selecting works for a new exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) back in September 2019. The show, called "Oh, honey…," isn't about "queer art" necessarily, whether interpreted as works by queer makers or with queer subject matter. Rather, the show features paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, video and other artforms, which call into question categories of gender and sexuality, especially as they relate to forms of power. It also engages in a project that's likely preoccupied many of us throughout our lives: finding queer spaces in a straight world.
The particular work I've been grappling with is Bjarne Melgaard's "Untitled" (2007), a massive, striking, oil-on-canvas painting that depicts three men, a dog and three marshmallowy, ghost-like monsters, two sporting razor-sharp teeth and one a somewhat jarringly prominent erection.
Everything about the painting is confrontational. The paint itself globs on the surface of the canvas, pushing its way into your space. The highly keyed greens, oranges, yellows and blues positively scream at you while the grand-scale tableau threatens to surround and engulf you if you come too close. You have to strain your neck upward to read the semi-scribbled text in the upper right, which says things like "the gay mafia monster" and "three fags pretending they are Ben Gazzara."
Now you see the problem. The painting deals irreverently with a homophobic slur, which has been reclaimed by some and fetishized by others, but which still carries a lot of pain and has the power to cause harm for many. By including the work in the exhibition, I realized I would be playing fast and loose with the word and this fraught history. And the image is huge; it demands pride of place in the gallery by virtue of its sheer size.
In my own reading of the work, the "voice" that utters these written phrases is a disdainful, gay, male one, likely because that partially aligns with my own identity position. The text mocks a kind of falsified masculinity embodied by the three figures as merely imitation, costume, make-believe. The judgments pronounced by the painting through this dislocated voice suggest that the speaker assumes a higher position — possibly a more authentic form of manhood? By reading the text, the work compels us to share in the same attitude, if even for a split second. In other words, we are encouraged to look at these three cartoonishly rendered men and think of them as "fags."
I know I'm not alone in having complicated feelings about the term. Over a year ago, walking down Huron Street in Ann Arbor, someone speeding along in a truck felt it necessary to yell that word at me. For some reason, that instance bothered me less than when my friends say it, gay or not, whether merely using it in a sentence or even directing it jokingly at me. Writing this in early August 2021, I'm also fresh off the news that Matt Damon just months ago learned that "fag" could be harmful, about a century late. My feelings about the word undoubtedly relate to my perceptions of personal and/or mental security. I didn't think for an instant that those guys in the truck were going to stop to follow up on their insult. But with friends, somehow the old playground fears of shame and ostracization come back to haunt me.
This all raised the question for me about whether I was celebrating Melgaard's painting or Melgaard himself by featuring his work in the exhibition. As I see it, the answer is no. Ultimately, it's up to each viewer to decide how to approach the painting and what they'll bring to it. For me, it remains profoundly ambivalent.
But the painting is still something to be reckoned with. The artist's work is often, mildly put, controversial. The issues the painting confronts us with about masculinity, identity, hierarchies — within, among, and outside LGBTQ+ communities — are uncomfortable, even painful. As a white, gay man reared in a deeply homophobic environment, my relationship with the painting differs from the ones other viewers will establish with it, to be sure. But there are several other works in "Oh, honey…" that offer a vastly different viewpoint and elicit a different response. For example, a glorious set of lithographs by Chitra Ganesh, Tracey Emin's vibrant and sardonic neon faux-sign, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres's quiet and mournful twin lightbulbs, are some works I thought powerful enough to contest the specific idea about queer experience conjured up by Melgaard's painting.
This, of course, isn't unique to "queer art." You can find examples of celebrities, films, TV shows and songs claiming to represent an aspect of queer experience that are fundamentally problematic and sometimes harmful. There is also art that wants to be celebrated but shouldn't be — take 19th-century imagery of soldiers and battles, for instance. Most of them are steeped in the patriarchal, nationalist, imperialist, and often racist ideologies that brought them into being. These paintings are rarely celebrated anymore, although they were very popular in their time. Studying these images and including Melgaard's painting in the UMMA exhibition is not to venerate difficult works of art but, instead, to examine critically how they have conveyed ideals of manhood, sexuality, and authority in their own historical contexts.
"Oh honey…" runs through February 20, 2022. Learn more at umma.umich.edu.